October 16, 2010

Playlist Week of 10-16-10

* Biber: Mensa Sonora (Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel) (Archiv Produktion CD)†
* Buxtehude: Six Sonatas (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden: Garrison Church, Copenhagen, Denmark 4/08/08 (FM 2CDR)
* Vivaldi: Flute Concertos (Arte dei Suonatori/Kossenko): Warszawa 6-26-09 (FM 2CDR)
* C.F. Bach, et al.: Orchestral Music (Concerto Köln), Brussels Conservatory 2-22-10 (FM CDR)
* Mozart: Night Music (English Concert/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Charles Mingus: Passions of a Man: Complete Atlantic Recordings (d.1-2) (Rhino 6CD)
* Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah-Um (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* Charles Mingus: Tijuana Moods (Deluxe Edition) (Bluebird/BMG 2CD)
* Sun Ra: The Shadows Took Shape (Lost Reel Collection, Vol.3) (Transparency 2CD)
* Sun Ra: unknown venue, circa. 1972 (AUD CDR)
* John Coltrane: The Heavyweight Champion: The Atlantic Recordings (d.5-6) (Rhino 7CD)
* Anthony Braxton & William Parker: Auditorium Canneti, Vicenza, Italy 5-15-07 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: Trio (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo CD)
* Anthony Braxton: 12+1tet (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo CD)
* Anthony Braxton Sextet+1: Moers Festival, Germany 5-26-07 (FM CDR)
* Cecil Taylor Quartet w/Anthony Braxton: Royal Festival Hall, London, England 6-08-07 (FM CDR)
* Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy 5-04-10 (FM 2CDR)
* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (Columbia 2LP)
* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (Legacy Edition) (d.2, DVD) (Copenhagen 11-04-69) (Columbia 2CD+DVD)
* Miles Davis Quintet: Philharmonie, Berlin, W. Germany 11-07-69 (FM CDR)
* Herbie Hancock: Mwandishi (Warner Bros. LP)
* Herbie Hancock: Crossings (Warner Bros. LP)
* Herbie Hancock: Sextant (Columbia CD)
* Eddie Henderson: Realization (Capricorn LP)
* Mahavishnu Orchestra: Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia LP)
* Johnny McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist (Columbia LP)
* Roy Orbison: The All-Time Greatest Hits (Monument/DCC CD)
* Van Morrison: A Sense of Wonder (Mercury/Polygram CD)
* Grateful Dead: University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 5-17-77 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA 5-18-77 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.3, No.1: Oakland 12-28-79 (GDP/Rhino 2+1CD)
* Grateful Dead: Manor Downs, Austin, TX 7-04-81 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Soft Machine: The Soft Machine (ABC/Probe/Sundazed LP)
* Jeff Beck: Wired (Epic LP)
* The Police: Live (A&M SACD)
* Boston Spaceships: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (GBV, Inc. CD)
* The Orb & David Gilmour: Metallic Spheres (Columbia CD)


Aptly subtitled, “Directions in Music,” Miles Davis’s 1969 double-album, Bitches Brew, remains an enigmatic signpost to an unrealized future. Universally heralded as an era-defining record, it has lost none of its edge over the years and, even today, sounds like no other music (including Miles’s own) before or since. Scared me to death the first time I heard it as a kid in the 1970s and it can still give me chills listening to it today. Bitches Brew is a dark and difficult album, especially compared to the proto-ambient tranquility of 1968’s In A Silent Way or the overtly blues-rock jamming heard on Jack Johnson less than a year later. Bitches Brew is sometimes posited to be the first “fusion” album. True or not (it’s not), anyone making such an assertion usually has an accompanying agenda: to retroactively assess blame to Miles Davis for the excesses of his progeny and, moreover, to dismiss the genre out of hand. I have to wonder: have any of these people pushing the common knowledge that Miles “sold out” ever actually sat down and listened to all one hundred minutes of Bitches Brew? This stuff is way out there! No other “fusion” album, even especially those by Miles’s actual progeny, sounds anything like this: an impenetrably thick ensemble consisting of two bassists (acoustic and electric); two drummers; two percussionists; three electric pianos and (sometimes) organ; plus three horns on top. Occasionally, John McLaughlin’s scorching electric guitar is thrown into soup and Miles’s trumpet is often bathed in spacey, psychedelic echoes—and all the while, producer Teo Macero is deftly wielding a razorblade in the manner of Karlheinz Stockhausen, constructing hypnotic tape loops, cinematic edits and dramatically contrasting crossfades. The music is a seething cauldron of sound and every time I listen to it, I hear it differently, a little more clearly. But it never becomes familiar or even remotely comfortable; it always sounds weird, timeless and inspired rather than hopelessly dated and clichéd like so much of the “fusion” music that would follow. Bitches Brew is an emphatic statement of purpose, a genuinely challenging work of art. And yet this imposing slab of avant-jazz actually sold a zillion copies, and continues to sell well enough to merit endless variations of reissue and repackaging. This is puzzling but pleasing.

Columbia Records obviously thinks there are enough folks out there who will spend a hundred and twenty-something dollars on the recently issued Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition box set. But as much as I love the album, I am reticent to drop that kind of dough at the moment. Don’t they realize we’re in the midst of a recession? (Or, excuse me, a “jobless recovery”?) Don’t they know the record business is dying on the vine? Who, exactly, is buying this thing? Admittedly, it’s jam-packed with lots of drool-worthy goodies: two CDs containing the 1998 digital re-mix plus a handful of previously-unreleased tracks; a DVD from Danish TV of the Quintet’s November 4, 1969 performance in Copenhagen; a two-LP reproduction of the original album mastered from the analog tapes; plus an unreleased recording of a Tanglewood concert from August, 1970. Oh, and a 12”x12” 48-page hardbound book. All things considered, the price is not out of line for what you get but, dang, that is still a lot of money. Fortunately for us less affluent, Columbia has also released a two-CD/one-DVD “Legacy Edition” that is more reasonably priced. I did pick this up at the local record store, even though it is probably the fifth or sixth version of this album I’ve purchased over the years. That’s the problem, for me, regarding these lavishly expensive box sets: I still have the original LP I purchased a million years ago. I also bought the wretched-sounding 1980s-era CD which I bitterly held onto until the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions was released in 1998. That seemed to me to be the last word on the subject. So, why buy this “Legacy Edition”?

First of all, the DVD is (almost) worth the twenty bucks all by itself and provides more useful context regarding Miles’s musical thinking circa. 1969 than the all extra tracks on the (mis-titled) Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set combined. It was in concert, with a small working band, that Miles first experimented with a “fusion” of rock rhythms and electric instrumentation with the subtle dynamics and virtuosic musicianship of traditional jazz. The new boogaloos such as “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” are performed alongside some of the older repertoire like “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Agitation,” all in an uninterrupted whirlwind of a set. The conflicting tensions within the band made for magical music, even if it eventually split them apart. Miles plays in his newly aggressive “slash and burn” manner and his pithy solos leave wide open space to his younger musicians, who are chomping at the bit. Chick Corea really shines here, wresting remarkably complex timbres out of the primitive Fender-Rhodes electric piano on his long, exploratory solos. Meanwhile, the rhythm section of Dave Holland on acoustic bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums establish propulsive yet elusive grooves which float around a barely implied beat. With Wayne Shorter blowing post-late-Coltrane-style tenor and soprano saxophones, this group is about as close to “free jazz” as Miles Davis ever got—and it sounds nothing like the music on the album—and nothing like any of the music that would follow. It’s a shame this band was never officially documented by Columbia, leaving behind only a handful of radio and TV broadcasts such as this one. By mid-1970, Shorter would be gone and Holland would soon be replaced by the eighteen-year-old electric bassist, Michael Henderson, and that “floating” rhythm would be for the most part replaced by the four-square pulse of pure funk. The DVD’s audio and video quality is excellent for the period and provides an extraordinary opportunity to watch the inner workings of Miles’s “lost quintet.” A most welcome addition to the discography.

Then there are the unreleased tracks, including alternate takes of “Spanish Key” and “John McLaughlin.” These appear to be unedited session tapes or rough mixes which, while enjoyable enough, only highlight the revolutionary cut-and-paste techniques employed on the finished album. Why this stuff was left off the so-called Complete Bitches Brew Sessions is something of a mystery, but these seventeen minutes of alternate versions are of definite interest to the dedicated Milesian. To round out the disc, single edits of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Spanish Key,” and the later tracks, “Great Expectations” and “Little Blue Frog,” are also included. The whole idea of condensing these sprawling, album-side-long cuts into three-minute singles is absurd, yet, somehow, they kind of work. Manufactured in miniscule quantities, these seven-inch singles were sent to radio stations and jukebox operators and are extremely rare so it’s nice to have them all in one place.

As for the remastering of the album itself, it sounds almost identical to the 1998 CD, but a bit louder, as in the current fashion. It’s not the worst remaster I’ve ever heard by any means, but it was wholly unnecessary. The other night, I listened to the original LP again for the first time in years and, indeed, it sounds very different from Mark Wilder’s remix, most noticeably the warm, analog echo effects and the vaguely menacing ambience of the sonic murk, which had been digitally neutered in the remixing process. That said, I generally prefer the remix. It was a revelation to hear it for the first time, to finally be able to discern each individual instrument with such startling clarity. There is even more going on in this music than I had ever even imagined! Of course, an argument could be made that the original mix is what Miles Davis intended and Wilder’s remix was a defacement of that work. But in 1999, Wilder told writer Paul Tingen that the original two-track analog masters “had not aged well” and a remix was therefore necessary. He insisted: “we could either work with inferior tape copies from other countries, or go back to the original eight tracks and re-mix them, and so save ourselves a generation.” Curiously, those two-track masters were supposedly used for the new 40th Anniversary vinyl and, according to noted audiophile, Michael Fremer, it sounds even better than a 1969 first pressing. I’d be interested in hearing it and if Columbia chooses to release the LP edition separately, I would likely replace my old beat-up copy, which has a nasty scratch on side three. Given the importance of this album, I think the original mix in its original format should once again be made widely available.

Columbia’s 1970 advertising campaign for Bitches Brew creatively pitched it as “A Novel By Miles Davis”:

Bitches Brew is an incredible journey of pain, joy, sorrow, hate, passion and love.
Bitches Brew is a new direction in music by Miles Davis.
Bitches Brew is a novel without words.

And in his original liner notes, Ralph J. Gleason wrote:

it’s all in there, the beauty, the terror and the love, the sheer humanity of life in this incredible electric world which is so full of distortion that it can be beautiful and frightening in the same instant.

In almost any another instance, all this could be dismissed as so much hype. But Bitches Brew really is more than just good music: it is an expansive artificial environment, a portal to singular experiences. It evokes complex moods and powerful feelings, resists easy interpretation and endlessly rewards repeated listening. It is a masterpiece of 20th Century Art—in whatever format—and belongs in everyone’s music library. Like a classic piece of literature, Bitches Brew will likely remain in print forever and that makes me very happy and hopeful for the future. Perhaps, like other monumental tomes, it will merely sit on a shelf as a totem of good taste and cultural sophistication. But some people will actually sit and listen and have their minds suitably blown. Yes, they will.

1 comment:

Sam said...

"...some people will actually sit and listen and have their minds suitably blown. Yes, they will." Yes, and more than once!! Great assessment, Rodger. It pisses me off that they somehow managed to dig up more alternate takes that somehow couldn't be found for the "complete" box--but it's also wonderful that they found more stuff! What really irks me is how they continue to bundle excellent stuff in these huge packages that schleps like me just can't afford. Maybe the library will get the box and I can check out this DVD, which sounds awesome. I love Bitches Brew and so will at some point probably get the 2 cd/1 dvd set (certainly never the 40th anniversary box)--if it stays in print. Which it probably won't, because it's overpriced to begin with! I shouldn't complain--I have the "complete" box set and it sounds great. But honestly.

Here's my list from last week:

Playlist 2010-10-18

*Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music vol. 1: First a-chronology 1921-2001, disc 2
*Art Ensemble of Chicago: The Art Ensemble (1967/68), discs 1-5
*Anthony Braxton Trio: 1979-11-17 Rome (CDR) disc 1
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1967-10-31 Stockholm (CDR)
*Mahavishnu Orchestra: 1973-01-27 Buffalo, NY (CDR) disc 1
*Charles Mingus: Mingus (Candid)
*New Loft: 2010-07-21 "Balance Shift Payload Maneuver" (wav)
*Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Drawn Inward
*Sun Ra: Fireside Chat With Lucifer (side 2)
*Cecil Taylor: 1997-10-04 Cooler, NYC (CDR)
*Beatles: Live Vol.1: Star Club (Purple Chick) disc 2
*Beatles Remixers Group: Let It Be remixed (discs 1-3)
*Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel
*Grateful Dead: 1972-04-14 Copenhagen (CDR) selections
*Jimi Hendrix: The Jimi Hendrix Experience (box set) discs 3, 4
*Jimi Hendrix: Acoustic Jams (boot CDR) disc 2
*Prince: Lovesexy
*Rolling Stones: Flowers
*Various artists: District of Noise Vol. 2 (Sonic Circuits DC)
*Various artists: District of Noise Vol. 3 (Sonic Circuits DC)
*Various artists: Sappy (CDR compilation)
*Various artists: That Devilin' Tune (Vol. 1, disc 7)

Reading log 2010-10-18

*Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer (finished)
*Toro, Guillermo del, and Chuck Hogan. The Fall (finished)
*Gaiman, Neil, et al. The Absolute Sandman, vol. 1. (in progress)
*Tanner, Tony. Prefaces to Shakespeare (in progress)
*Theobald, Lewis. Double Falsehood (Arden Shakespeare ed.) (in progress)